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Separation of Church and School February 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election, Politics.
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***Much of this post is incited and informed by Russell Shorto’s excellent NYT Magazine article, “How Christian Were the Founders?”  It is long, but well worth the read.***

There are times when we are reminded that even a single, small election can matter.  No, this isn’t about Scott Brown.  I am speaking of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).  How many of you vote in your state’s BOE elections?  Do you even remember?  If it wasn’t on the straight party ticket I certainly didn’t.  But these elections can have sweeping consequences, especially in Texas.

I have written previously of Don McLeroy, the dentist on the Texas SBOE who last year decided he was more qualified to determine the science curriculum than the National Academy of Sciences.  Specifically about creationism.  Each year, the Texas SBOE reviews and rewrites that state’s public school curriculum standards for one subject, and this year is History.

Before we move any further, it is important to highlight the significance of these decisions and the broader implications of the public school curriculum in Texas.  With 4.7 million public school students, Texas is the second largest domestic market for textbooks.  Because the largest, California, is so specific, Texas essentially determines what is or isn’t included in textbooks for the rest of the country.  While publishers offer the decidedly weak defense that “It’s not a given that Texas’ curriculum translates into other states,” Professor James Kracht of Texas A&M, who has long been involved in the state’s textbook process, explains that “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”  So a perversion of Texas’ curriculum is a national problem.

This situation is not lost on the members of the Texas SBOE.  In fact, for many, it’s the entire reason they’re there.  7 of the 15 members operate openly as a Christian conservative voting bloc and are quite frank about their objectives.  This causes some tension with the rational world.

Mr. Shorto offers samples of this year’s controversies:

“McLeroy moved that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics,” that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” following Jimmy Carter’s presidency and that students be instructed to “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.” The injection of partisan politics into education went so far that at one point another Republican board member burst out in seemingly embarrassed exasperation, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!” Nevertheless, most of McLeroy’s proposed amendments passed by a show of hands.”

and

“The board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.”

Many of you may remember the beloved children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”  Its author, Bill Martin Jr., was recently removed from the Texas 3rd grade social studies curriculum on account of un-American “critiques of capitalism and the American system.”  The board members were concerned about a 2008 book entitled “Ethical Marxism” written by Bill Martin.  A different Bill Martin. By the time their mistake was pointed out, the board members had already struck Bill Martin Jr. from the curriculum.  This is a benign example of what happens when non-expert ideologues are allowed to decide what our kids should and shouldn’t learn.

The latest victim of McCarthyism. In textbooks for children no less.

Don McLeroy has long led this misguided charge, but he is not at all alone.

Another board member, Cynthia Dunbar, works at the new law school at Jerry Falwell’s conservative Liberty University.  The school’s stated objective is “to transform legislatures, courts, commerce and civil government at all levels.”  As a law professor, she teaches her students legal techniques to overturn rulings against conservative objectives such as prayer in schools.  In her book “One Nation Under God,” Dunbar described her work on the SBOE as a “battle for our nation’s children and who will control their education and training” and described it as crucial to our [Christians’] success for reclaiming our nation.

With such strong beliefs about education, it is not surprising to find Dunbar on a SBOE; indeed, concerned parents have every right to voice concern about their children’s education and even to get involved if they so choose.  But Dunbar does not have children in the Texas public school system.  She wrote in her book about “the inappropriateness of a state-created, taxpayer-supported school system” and compared sending kids to public schools to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” All of her kids were home-schooled or attended private Christian schools.  She is on the SBOE purely to indoctrinate America’s youth.

Fortunately, these abuses have not gone unnoticed.  Campaigns are in full swing ahead of the March 3rd election for these important positions, and Don McLeroy and his social conservative bloc have serious challengers running against them.  But stakeholders on both sides of the aisle are mobilizing their supporters; conservatives only need to pick up one more reliable vote to gain complete control of the Board.  Conservatives are typically much more active in small mid-term elections (which is how we found ourselves in this predicament to begin with), but rational people are fed up with these 7 zealots in unfortunate positions of outsized power.  It is time to end this perversion of our nation’s public education, and on March 3rd, Texans will have their chance to do it.